A public radio piece suggested that America is defining civility down. After Congressman Joe Wilson (“You lie!”) and Serena Williams (F#$%!!!) lost their respective tempers in a single week, their outbursts have set the agenda for another visit to civility country.
What speech is socially acceptable now — and where and when? After years of watching John McEnroe get his freak on at line judges who thought his balls were out when they should have been in, it’s hard to be shocked (shocked!) by Serena’s salty sailor’s tongue — except that it turned out to be her US Open swan song.
Context, context, context: The real estate principle of speech. It’s the location, stupid! Should Serena have been called out for calling out? Sure. She had it coming. Sociologist Erving Goffman (I miss him now that I’ve never met him and he’s passed into social science heaven) would have called those outbursts a “lack of dramaturgical discipline.” In nonacademic jargon, it’s a failiure to “maintain.”
As for the You Lie Guy, I’m not buying his excuse that his emo got the best of him — or the worst of him. Yes, he was seen to be chewing his cheeks during the president’s scolding speech. But when he spit out his imprecation, Wilson seemed more like a fellow who had calculated just when to let ‘er rip. After all, with the 1,000-page bill full of communist lies, he could have picked any of them — like Tom Brady looking downfield to see a whole heap of receivers. Wilson played the Illegal Immigrant card. But there was Death Panels, all alone in the end zone.
Homo ludens — man the game player. That was Huizinga’s definitive take on our human nature. We play, therefore we exist. Politics, like tennis, is a very engaging game, and at the highest level — the US congress, the US Tennis Open– the professional play to win.
Unlike tennis — a game with short-term winners and losers — politics tends to be a longterm contest with clear-cut wins and losses mostly at primary and election time. True, the perpetual news cycle is full of folks calling winners and losers every hour on the hour. But it’s not hard to see that winning and losing in tennis is a different ball of fuzz with a different spin.
Not that winning isn’t what politics can be about. It is now, as the nation turns its lonely and glazed eyes to health care whatever — reform, socialism, Nazism, Euro-ism, liberalism. It doesn’t take a genius to know that there’s a lot more at stake in the health care game than in the women’s final in Queens. After all, when Serena lost, she could walk away and say she’d been a naughty girl. But half the country seems to believe that if one of the zillion Obama-driven health care bills are passed, we’ll be offing grandma.
But back to the topic at hand — the civil or uncivil tongue. A half hour of watching Brit prime minister Gordon Brown get loudly dissed by backbenchers in parliament and it’s apparent that Americans are — depending on your perspective — uptight, priggish or far more decorous. But one man’s decorum is another’s outburst. Culture rules in these matters. Say It Ain’t So, Joe broke the rules, as did potty-mouthed Serena.
If you want to be a homo ludens in good standing, you’ve got to play by the rules. Or you lose.
Whether Wilson’s wildness got his side a W remains to be seen. I doubt that his mouth has legs, so to speak. It doesn’t even rate a beer summit. But I do suspect that, unlike Serena, he crossed a line in political communication.
I’ll be perking up my ears for more outbursts from both teams in this political season.